Understanding the digital divide with David Sutphen and Aaron Smith

Feb 23, 2011

David Sutphen, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, and Aaron Smith, senior research specialist at Pew Internet, were online Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the digital divide and how it impacts youth, communities and more.

Hi everyone, thanks for joining us here today! By way of introduction, my name is Aaron Smith and I’m a researcher with the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project (http://pewinternet.org/).  We’re a non-profit survey research firm that examines the impact of the internet and other digital technologies, and have done a number of studies looking at disparities in internet access and technology use. I’m looking forward to chatting with you all for the next hour.

Look forward to the discussion!

As healthcare providers move towards greater implementation of health information technology, what do you see as the potential for a new health care digital divide - i.e., either the benefits of HIT are not realized in minority or low-income communities, or HIT ends up exacerbating current disparities in care?

One of the reasons why digital literacy is such an important component of closing the digital divide is it helps ensure that once people are connected, we don't replicate the gaps that currently exist between the connected and disconnected.   A recent Pew study on wireless broadband had some encouraging statistics which show that African Americans and Hispanics actually lead the way in terms of wireless data usage.  As such mobile HIT applications like Txt4Baby have the potential to positively impact communities of color. 

Just to add to David's answer, the issue of health is a key one--our recent studies have indicated that people with a chronic health condition or disability are much less likely than other groups to go online, but that once they do get access they are extremely active in engaging wtih patient communities and discussion groups.

With most of the US-based internet resources (news, search, social networks) setup to use English, I am not surprised to learn that Hispanics are less comfortable on the Internet. I would think that any non-native English speaker would find the Internet less inviting. I know there are websites for the Asian and Asian-American community, but probably far fewer for French-Americans or German-Americans or other languages. I think that as technology reaches further into our daily lives, the more important it will be to speak English in order to successfully live and work in the United States.

Although language barriers are always a challenge, I thought I'd share a few compelling statistics regarding the Hispanic community from VotoLatino:

Out of the 50 million US Latinos, 79% are English-speaking.

What that tells me is that language-barriers may not be as big of an issue as other adoption hurdles, like digital literacy, cost or doubt about the value that comes from being online.

<This is Aaron chiming in>David is absolutely correct that issues relating to cost, digital literacy and the value of online tools are key within all populations. However, we've found pretty consistently that (within the Latino population at least) that language proficiency is a key predictor of whether or not someone uses the internet or has a home broadband connection--even when we control for other factors such as income, education or age.

How can we get (low income) minorities interested in technology and tech companies interested in minorities? Norman Weekes

One exciting public/private initiative focused on Science, Technology, Math and Engineering ("STEM") education launched about six months ago and is called "Change the Equation"  Check out the website: www.changetheequation.org.  

Over 100 companies have come together to work collaboratively to identify STEM-related programs across the country that are working and find ways to highlight and scale them.  One of the core priorities of Change the Equation is to increase the number of girls and kids of color pursuing degrees in STEM fields.


One of the elements that comes through clearly in the research is that a multi-faceted approach is required to get people over the internet/broadband hump--economic issues are a key consideration, but so are digital skills and literacy, showing people how technology can be relevant in their lives. To their credit, many of the public and private technology initiatives out there now are addressing this issue on a number of different levels.

Do you think that the cost of computers plays into the lack of access to them? If so, will there ever be a computer that is affordable and not lacking in advanced technology?

From the research and studies I've seen cost is one component of the digital divide, but actually not necessarily the most important one.  From work that Pew has done as well as other research, it turns out that a lack of comfort with technology (i.e., digital literacy)  and a failure to see the value proposition in being connected are often greater impediments to people getting online.

Cost definitely plays a role, but it's far from the only consideration--a number of non-adopters are not comfortable with technology or have trouble using computers without assistance; others haven't had much exposure to the benefits of technology within their peer networks and as a result don't see "what's in it for them" to invest in using these tools. And of course others simply can't get access even if they wanted it--as the federal government's recent broadband map clearly demonstrated.

Could low-cost wireless services like Cricket and MetroPCS play a positive role here? Is it possible to have an adequate Internet experience using a phone as your sole or primary device?

That's a really important question. We know from our work (and the work of others) that wireless technologies (cell phones in particular) are helping to bridge some gaps in access that continue to persist in traditional measures of internet access. But are those folks really able to engage in key online activities like applying for jobs, getting educational material or signing up for government benefits? We're hoping to do some work on this question in the spring, to really nail down the extent to which people are relying on mobile devices and what they see as the benefits and limitations of that mode of access.

One of the benefits of the wireless/mobile Internet is that it's a lower cost point of entry to the broadband world.  I think it would be interesting for Pew to explore how quickly, if at all, people who first become connected to the broadband Internet through a mobile device, end up signing up for a fixed line connection.

What are some of the ways we can better educate people so they become more comfortable with technology?

Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet answer to this question, however, organizations like One Economy: www.one-economy.com

are doing great work through their digital connectors program.   Schools, community based organizations, churches, the media and other stakeholders all have a roll to play in not only making technology more accessible, but also helping explain WHY it's so critically important for people to be connected.   Once people see the true value, it will help them overcome that tech anxiety.


As I've mentioned a couple of times here today, this is an issue where multiple strategies are required. Some groups may be ready to jump online and just need some economic assistance to get them over the hump.  For others, illustrating the relevance of technology in their daily lives is the key consideration. We've seen some evidence that social media is playing this role with seniors, for example. Whatever approach is taken, it's clear that getting exposure through one's peer and community networks is a key consideration both in seeing the benefits of technology and overcoming anxiety towards the use of new tools.

How much of the digital divide is generational? I would think that older people would be less likely to be current on using computers.

Age undoubtedly plays a role in adoption and I believe the cut-off where the divide grows most substantially is with seniors over the age of 70.

Age is definitely one of the biggest factors in whether or not someone goes online or has a broadband connection at home. Yet while seniors are less likely than other groups to get online, they are really active and engaged once they overcome that initial hurdle. For example, people over the age of 50 are the fastest-growing group when it comes to blogging, or to using social networking sites. Once seniors are exposed to the benefits of technology and get some training to overcome their apprehensions about using new tools, they're just as active as anyone else in their online habits.

I understand the need to close the digital divide from the perspective of social good (education, participation in government, etc.), but does the private sector seem eager to develop this underserved market? Can we afford to wait on the profit motive to close the gaps in access and usage?

Closing the digital divide completely will require collaboration between private industry and government, which is one of the reasons the President announced an inititive in the State of the Union to help ensure that all Americans -- regardless of geography, socie-economic or background -- are connected.  Changes to programs like the Universal Service Fund to make it more relevant to the broadband realities of today will also help. 

I would love to see a Pew study on whether those applications - jobs, government, education - are accessible by phone browsers. In my experience, some of those aren't even accessible from Macs, or require particular PC browsers, etc.

We're hoping to study exactly this question in a survey we're conducting this spring. We know that certain groups (lower-income people of color, for instance) are especially reliant on their mobile devices to connect them to friends, news, entertainment and other online resources. What we're not so sure about is where they run into the limitations of those devices, so that's front and center on our research agenda!

Whether job applications are accessible on mobile devices is an important question, but the more fundamental question in my view is what % of companies now only allow you to apply for a job online.  When you consider the fact that the disconnected are often lower income, live in rural areas and are minorities -- groups with traditionally higher unemployment rates -- it is potentially a major problem if the only way they can apply for a job is online. 

What is most popular with them? Facebook? Do you think they're taking part more now that it's become so accessible? And not as frightening?

I was just at an event last week with one of Aaron's colleagues from Pew who said that social media applications like Facebook are in fact the largest driver of adoption among seniors.  Being able to connect with family and friends is such a huge draw and benefit to them, which reinforces my earlier point that closing the divide is really about finding those things that people value so much about being connected that they overcome their fears or decide the cost is worth it.

That's exactly right--those sites offer a place for older users to interact with people (friends, family members) that they might not see regularly, to find others who share a common hobby or interest. In our past work we've found that older adults tend to view the internet as a "scary" place, so finding out that it helps you share everything from recipes to stock tips to baby pictures of grandkids can be a huge a-ha moment.

The woman in the article can afford cable but not internet?  I have never had cable in my life, and I am using a public computer to send this e-mail. I only get 70 minutes a day if i am lucky. I wish I could afford a wireless or wired device and internet access but I can't.

Late last year the Internet Innovation Alliance did a study on the annual cost savings your can enjoy by having a broadband connection.  Those savings take the form of discounted prices, sale, etc., available exclusively on the Internet.   Check out the study -- it might impact your perspective on whether you can afford to sign up for a home broadband connection:



It was a great success when Congress mandated, some years ago, Closed Captions for nearly all TV programming. But now, as HDTVs become more common, we are actually going backwards, as CCs are not required to be carried over HDMI cables. Therefore they are not. Thus streaming videos and other digital sources are not captioned, leaving the hard of hearing and deaf without access to these features. What can we do to alert Congress to this oversight? And/or to encourage manufacturers to include CCs on Internet-enabled devices?

Congressman Ed Markey from Massachusetts has been a longtime advocate on these issues, so I would encourage you to reach out to his office to find ways to get engaged.  He recently championed an update to the People with Disabilities Act that was designed in part to make the law more relevant to the 21st Century realities facing people with disabilities.

I'd just like to share some work that my colleague Susannah did recently on internet use by people with disabilities: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Disability.aspx

There are definitely some challenges with interviewing the hard of hearing in a telephone survey, but we like to think it's a good start at quantifying the issue.

I'm in a rural area and there is basically a government enforced monopoly on wired internet (the cable company) and another monopoly on wireless (the phone company). In addressing the urban/rural gap. Would reforming this out-dated monopoly scheme be of any benefit?

Helping close the digital divide in rural communities remains a critically important priority, but also presents real challenges because of technological limitations and the significant investment needed to build out infrastructure.   A large part of the President's announcement in the State of the Union around broadband was driven by a recognition of the need to ensure that rural communities can benefit fully from broadband and the Internet economy.

Is there a digital divide in schools, are do most schools regardless of socioeconomic status or region of country have similar access to computers? If there are significant differences among schools, what are these differences?

One of the goals of the federal government's new broadband map is to study the extent to which schools are (or are not) connected to the broadband world, so that's a great resource for that information. Schools and libraries obviously play a key role in providing access to groups that might otherwise not have it. For example, in our teens work black/latino students are about as likely as white students to go online--but white students are much more likely to do so from home, while minority students are much more likely to rely on access at their school or in a library.

Will the Net Neutrality rules adopted by the FCC limit access to certain types of content through mobile devices?

The dynamic and competitive nature of the wireless/mobile Internet -- everyday a new device, application or service emerges in the marketplace -- are clear signs that companies are doing what they can to ensure consumers can have access to what they want, when they want it. 

Part of the stimulus package in 2009 was put towards bringing high speed internet access to rural areas. I know there's now a push to bring wireless access as well. What is the government doing to make sure that people are able to use the internet well and to its full potential, once high speed lines are installed?

When the FCC released its broadband plan last year, it placed a major emphasis on barriers to adoption that go beyond access--digital literacy and skills training, and focusing on areas such as education, job skills and health that can help people bridge the "relevance gap". Obviously it remains to be seen how those goals will be turned into concrete programs, but the people in charge of implementing this policy are clearly thinking well beyond "build it and they will come"

Thanks everyone for the great questions--it's been fun!

Really enjoyed the chat and the great questions.  Keep an eye out for more great Pew Research and be sure to visit the IIA website: Internetinnovation.org.   Signing off: #davidasutphen

In This Chat
David Sutphen
David Sutphen has been co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance since October 2009. He has held significant leadership positions in Congress, the entertainment industry and trade associations.

Sutphen is currently a partner at Brunswick Group LLC, a strategic communications firm. Prior to joining Brunswick, David was the Senior Vice President of Government Relations at Viacom, the parent company of MTV Networks, BET Networks and Paramount Pictures. While at Viacom, he was a leading advisor to senior corporate and divisional executives on policy, political and CSR matters. He also served as co-chair of the Viacom Corporate Responsibility Council and as its representative on the Board of the Copyright Alliance. David joined Viacom from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), where he was Senior Vice President of Government and Industry Relations and represented the major record labels before Congress, regulatory agencies and in the media.
Aaron Smith
Aaron is a senior research panelist with the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Aaron's primary areas of research with the Project include the role of the internet in the political process, technology in civic life and online engagement with government. He has also authored research on mobile internet usage, the role of the internet in family life and demographic trends in technology adoption.

Aaron has been with the Project since the spring of 2007. He holds a Masters degree in Public Affairs and an undergraduate degree from the Plan II Honors Program, both from the University of Texas at Austin.
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